Karen Armstrong, in her book A History of God, speculates that theology has evolved over the past 4,000 years. She states that human beings are spiritual animals, and a belief in a personal God developed from our human need to believe in a powerful being that cared enough about us to allay our fears arising from our struggle and stress in living our lives. In other words, she concludes we embraced God out of our fear for the unknown.
Christians who understand God’s Word in the Holy Bible know that we don’t worship God out of fear for the unknown. Fear and God are connected, but not in this way. We know from reading our Bible that we shouldn’t fear the unknown because we know God, and we know He has a plan for our lives. Yet, Scripture does tell us we are to fear God. What does this mean? This confusion has caused problems for the Christian churches for many, many years.
In the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800’s, the intuitive Joseph Smith recognized many Christians were tired of hearing their pastors preach about sin and hell fire and damnation for sinners who refused to repent. Smith in fact appointed himself as a prophet of God and designed a religion to draw people away from their Christian churches by defining sin as a poor choice and telling them that very few people go to hell anyway. Smith called his religion “The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints,” aka the Mormon Church. It now has over fourteen million members worldwide and growing because Smith’s siren song continues to draw people who don’t understand what it means to fear God away from their churches. Preachers who continue to insist that God is to be feared are labeled as “hell fire-damnation preachers or as legalistic Bible thumpers. Churches are sensitive to being branded in this way because they fear losing their members. In response, many churches over the years have taken a page from Joseph Smith’s playbook and downplayed the idea of fearing God; and now this biblical concept is virtually lost in our culture and inside the Christian Church as well.
So then, how should we understand what it means to fear God? Dr. Eric B. Watkins, senior pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine, Florida, in an article he wrote for Ligonier Ministry’s Tabletalk magazine entitled “Putting the Fear of God into Practice,” explains the tension between fear and God in an attempt to reverse this trend. He connects the fear of God with love of God “Just as mercy and justice sweetly kiss at the cross, so do love and fear sweetly comply in the context of a healthy Christian life.” He explains that the fear of God should be understood as we understood our relationship with our father in growing up.
Ever since I was old enough to remember, I recall that my father was the boss in our house. We children knew there were rules, and we knew we were expected to observe them. Sure, we all feared his discipline, but I also knew our father loved us, and I felt secure in that love. Of course, there were times when we were disobedient and were disciplined, and we expected that outcome; it taught me to be accountable and responsible for my actions. From an adult perspective, I recognized he was acting out of his love for us. In fact, I recognized that there could really have been no true love without a fear of our father. Our respectful fear of his authority properly defined our relationship between parent and child. The same concept applies even more to God, our Father. To know God is to love Him and know that He loves us. To know God is to fear Him because there can be no love without fear. It is the fear that serves to define His authority as our Father, and our position as His adopted children.
What does our fear of God do for us? It gets us out of ourselves, and that’s where Christians need to be. Without an understanding of a biblical fear of God, we are prone “to think too much of ourselves and too little of God.” Our fear of God gets us out of ourselves and focused on where we know we should be focused, on Him.
What does the Bible have to say about the fear of God? The Bible describes the fear of God and its connection with love in a number of verses which specifically provide us with what a fear of God does for us. The theme is most often repeated in the book of Proverbs, the most famous of which is probably “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” In fact, the phrase “fear of the Lord” appears sixteen times in Proverbs and helps us connect fear of God with, not only wisdom, but with hate, evil, prolong life, and enjoy satisfaction, honor, and safety.
What happens if we don’t fear God? Dr. Watkins says that “Without the fear of God, the young listener to the book of Proverbs falls into many traps, is lured away by evil, is seduced by the desires of the flesh, and ends up destroyed by a lack of wisdom. In short, without the fear of God, our path is one that leads us away from God and to destruction.” Christians who do not fear God as a proper recognition of his Fatherly authority “live in a state of anarchy and uncertainty; they neither truly know God nor truly know themselves.”
Dr. Watkins concludes by saying “To love God as Father includes a healthy fear of Him that keeps us humble and causes us to strive to bring holiness to completion in the fear of God.”